Skip to main content

Full text of "On the Origin of the Somali Race, Which Inhabits the North-Eastern Portion of Africa"

See other formats


Early Journal Content on JSTOR, Free to Anyone in the World 

This article is one of nearly 500,000 scholarly works digitized and made freely available to everyone in 
the world by JSTOR. 

Known as the Early Journal Content, this set of works include research articles, news, letters, and other 
writings published in more than 200 of the oldest leading academic journals. The works date from the 
mid-seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. 

We encourage people to read and share the Early Journal Content openly and to tell others that this 
resource exists. People may post this content online or redistribute in any way for non-commercial 

Read more about Early Journal Content at 
journal-content . 

JSTOR is a digital library of academic journals, books, and primary source objects. JSTOR helps people 
discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content through a powerful research and teaching 
platform, and preserves this content for future generations. JSTOR is part of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit 
organization that also includes Ithaka S+R and Portico. For more information about JSTOR, please 


VII. — On the Origin of the Somali Race, which inhabits the 
North-eastern portion of Africa. By Col. C. P. ElGBY. 

[Read Feb. 27th, 1866.] 

The north-eastern portion of Africa, which is embraced between 
the Straits of Bab-el-Mandel and Cape Guardafui, and thence as far 
south as the equator, is inhabited by tribes composing the great 
Somali race, which differs from all other African races in feature, 
language, and customs. The origin of this race, and the question 
as to what family it belongs, is, I think, worthy of discussion. 

Previous to the occupation of Aden by the British, Europeans 
had very little intercourse with the Somali, and very little was 
known concerning them. No European traveller had ever pene- 
trated into their country, and to this day the greater portion of 
it remains unvisited 

The Somali are a pastoral race, possessing large herds of cattle, 
and flocks of the Doomba or fat-tailed sheep. They subsist chiefly 
on the produce of their flocks and herds. On the east coast they 
cultivate a great deal of grain, and lead a more settled life, dwell- 
ing in towns and villages. Those tribes which inhabit this part 
are much taller and more robust than the inhabitants of the com- 
paratively barren country further north. The men are generally 
six feet in height, and all have the most regular white teeth. 

The Somali are generally tall and well made, with a very dark 
smooth skin ; their features express great intelligence and anima- 
tion, and are of a Grecian type, with thin lips and aquiline noses ; 
their hair is long, and very thick. They have none of the charac- 
teristic features of the Negro race, which they affect to despise. The 
men comb out their hair into little ringlets, having the appearance 
of a thick mop ; they wear no head-dress, and bestow much time 
and care in the arrangement of their luxuriant hair, and, in order 
not to derange it at night, they rest their head on a small wooden 
pillow scooped out to support the cheek. They also frequently 
change the colour of the hair by applying a preparation of quick 
lime. They have also a custom of shaving their own hair off, 
and substituting a large bushy sheep-skin wig dyed a bright red 
colour. On the top of their hair or wig they wear two thin sticks 
bound together, which they use as a comb to twist out their 
ringlets. Those who have slain an enemy in battle, wear an 
ostrich feather stuck upright in their hair. They have generally 
very scanty beards and moustache, and these they frequently 
pluck out. 

92 C. P. Rigby — Origin of the Somali Race. 

The women are generally tall and well formed ; when young, 
they are very good looking. They are not secluded, and are 
under no restraint, being treated as the equals of the men. They 
are always merry and good-humoured. The unmarried girls wear 
their hair in small ringlets hanging loosely all over the head ; 
after marriage it is drawn tightly over the back of the head, and 
inclosed in a bag of network, or in a black or blue handkerchief. 
Many of the girls, although jet black, possess features of classic 
beauty, but the rough life they lead causes them to fade early ; 
yet their brilliant eyes and white teeth always give a pleasing 
expression to their goodnatured faces. 

When the English first occupied Aden, the dress of the Somali 
females usually consisted of goat skins tied over the left shoulder 
and hanging loosely in front ; but they soon became ashamed of 
this primitive costume, and their dress now consists of a white or 
coloured cotton cloth bound round the waist, with both ends 
fastened in a knot across the breast. Their ornaments consist of 
large necklaces called " audulli", composed of glass and coral 
beads and pieces of amber, with bracelets of the same. 

The dress of the men is very graceful. It consists of a flowing 
white robe, exactly resembling the old Roman costume, wrapt 
loosely round the body, and one end thrown over the left shoulder. 
Their legs are bare, and on their feet they wear sandals of cow- 
hide. They are very fond of wearing charms and amulets made 
of silver or amber, or a small leather bag, containing sentences 
from the Koran, hung round the neck, or fastened on the right 

Both sexes pay great attention to their teeth. The tooth-brush, 
consisting of a fibrous twig of a tree, is in constant use ; and I 
have never seen any race of people possessing such white, regular, 
and perfect sets of teeth. 

They are bigoted Mohammedans, and very strict in the observ- 
ance of the ceremonies of their religion ; yet, strange to say, they 
do not seclude their females, and both sexes join together in 
merry dances and other amusements. In addition to the Moham- 
medan festivals and fasts, they observe some which have probably 
an earlier origin than their present faith. The chief of these is 
the festival of "Dubsheed" or new year's day — literally the 
Bonfire, — which they celebrate with feasting and dancing round 
large bonfires. They are passionately fond of singing, dancing, 
and mirth in every form. They attach great importance to the 
rite of circumcision, which they consider the most important ob- 
servance of their religion ; it is usually performed between the 
ages of four and eight years. 

A very singular custom prevails amongst the Somali, which I 
have never heard of as existing amongst any other race. " Hac 

C. P. Rigby — Origin of the Somali Race. 93 

in gente ad castitatem servandam hujusmodi mos est. Puellarura 
vulvas filo ex corio confecto constringunt ; has, cum connubiale 
jugum ferre poterunt, magno cum apparatu solvunt." 

The Somali are a pastoral race, but also carry on a considerable 
trade. Large caravans from the interior of their country visit 
the great annual fair at Berbera, bringing for sale coffee, ivory, 
gum-arabic, myrrh, frankincense, ostrich feathers, ghee, etc. Since 
the occupation of Aden by the British, the Somali have continued 
to visit it, and furnish the chief supply of sheep, glue, etc. On 
the east coast they carry on a considerable trade from the ports 
of Brava, Merka, and Magadesho. The frankincense country is 
inhabited by the Magarthein tribe of Somalis. It is situated in 
the range of limestone mountains, which extends for about one 
hundred and fifty miles from Cape Guardafui to Bunder Cassim. 
Along this coast are many towns and villages inhabited by the 
people of this powerful tribe. Many Banians from Kutch, and 
Arabs, reside here, and carry on a considerable trade in gums, 
hides, etc. The frankincense tree grows upon the limestone rock ; 
the gum is collected by making a deep incision into the stem. 

The Somali have a tradition that their ancestors emigrated 
from the Arabian province of Hadramaut to Med, on the African 
coast ; from which place their descendants gradually spread over 
the country they now occupy, having driven out the original Galla 
inhabitants. They ascribe the origin of the present tribes to three 
persons, named Isacc, Tir, and Tarood. Isacc they consider to be 
the progenitor of the three principal tribes — the Habr gir Hajis, 
Habr Awul, and Habr tul Jaitah. According to this tradition, 
Tarood was originally from Africa ; and they consider that the 
tribes descended from him are of Negro origin. These are the 
Majertein, Wur Sungulli, Dhol Bahanta, and Wbgadin. 

The Somali tribes differ much in feature and general appear- 
ance, some being much lighter in colour than others; but all 
speak the same language, and differ but slightly in manners and 
customs. Each tribe is quite independent, and is governed by its 
own sultan or girad, whose authority is little more than nominal. 
Feuds constantly occur between the various tribes ; and, being a 
very warlike, independent race, bloody fights often occur. Their 
arms consist of a light spear about six feet in length, a shield of 
rhinoceros hide, a long, straight, two-edged dagger, and a bow 
with arrows poisoned with the juice of a tree called " gergalla". 
Firearms are scarce, and seldom used by them. In addition to 
the long heavy spear, they usually carry a short light one for 

They generally marry between fifteen and twenty years of age. 
When a man is desirous of marrying, his parents or friends apply 
to the relatives of the girl, and, if their consent is obtained, the 

94 C. P. RlGBY — Origin of the Somali Race. 

girl is seldom consulted on the subject. They next arrange the 
marriage portion which the young man is to pay, and which is 
generally fixed at fifty sheep, or a few camels or cows, when in 
their own country. When residing in Arabia, the dowry is from 
twenty to twenty-five dollars in silver, according to the custom of 
the Arabs. The girl is not expected to contribute anything. A man 
can divorce his wife whenever he chooses. Polygamy is common 
among them, but the women are always treated as equals by the 
men. When a man dies, his property is divided amongst his 
children, the daughters receiving only a small portion. The widow 
either marries one of her former husband's relations, or returns to 
her own family. When a man dies leaving no children, his widow 
receives no share of his property, which is divided amongst his 
nearest male relations, one of whom usually marries the widow. 

The houses of the Somali are generally built in the usual 
African fashion, circular, constructed with leaves and reeds covered 
with skins and mats. These are, however, generally used by the 
wandering tribes ; when settled in towns, they construct stone 
houses in the Arab fashion, with flat roofs. The furniture con- 
sists of a mat couch, a few brass or earthen cooking utensils, large 
earthen jars for holding milk, a prayer carpet, and a wooden rest 
for the head when sleeping. The same custom of female circum- 
cision prevails among the Somali as among the Abyssinians. 
According to their own tradition, they were converted to the 
Mohammedan faith by a messenger from Umr, one of the chiefs 
of the Koreish tribe. 

Travellers or merchants, when visiting the Somali country, are 
obliged to engage a person called an " Aban", who becomes re- 
sponsible for their security during their residence in the country, 
and also acts as broker, agent, and interpreter. The aban is 
usually selected from among the elders of one of the principal 
tribes. He is remunerated by a percentage on all purchases by 
traders, and presents by travellers. Should any violence or insult 
be offered to a stranger when under the guardianship of an aban, 
his tribe is bound to resent it. 

The Somali language has not the slightest resemblance to either 
the Arabic, Amharic, Galla, or Sowahili languages. From the 
intercourse with the Arabs, many Arabic words have been added 
to it ; but the construction of the language is not influenced by 
them. The language affords no aid in determining the question 
as to the probable origin of the Somali race. If they are de- 
scended from the Abyssinian conquerors of Arabia Felix, we 
might expect to find some affinity between the Amharic, or Abys- 
sinian, and the Somali languages. The Somalis themselves have no 
grammatical rules for the formation of words ; but their language 
is remarkable for its regular construction, particularly when it is 

C. P. Rigby — Origin of the Somali Mace. 95 

considered that it has no written character. It possesses two 
genders of nouns ; the plural is regularly formed from the sin- 
gular. The verb has four tenses, corresponding to the present, 
past, future, and conditional ; also an imperative and prohibitive 
form. The verb is always the last word in a sentence. The defi- 
nite article is expressed by the affixes ka, hi; or ga, gi; da, di; as 

Agal, a house Agalka, the house 

Nin, a man Ninki, the man 

Mindi, a knife Mindida, the knife 

Diir, cloth Durka, the cloth 

Animals of different sexes have generally different names ; as 

Furus, a horse Gehyen, a mare 

Dibi, a bull Saha, a cow 

Awur, a male camel Hub, a female camel 

Wil, a son Ghubr, a daughter 

The plural is usually formed by the addition of o, go, od, to the 
singular ; as 

Bor, a hill 

Boro, hills 

Nag, a woman 

Nago, women 

Mindi, a kuife 

Mindigo, knives 

The numerals are as follows 

: — 

1, Mid or kau 

7, Tuddoba 

2, Liibab. 

8, Sided 

3, Sadab. 

9, Suggal 

4, Afarr 

10, Tobun 

5, Sbun 

11, Kaubi ya tobun 

6, Liyah 

12, Lubah ya tobun 



The personal pronoun is as follows : — 

Aneka, / Anaga, we 

Adeka, thou Idinka, you 

Husuggu, he Naka, they 

The salutation on meeting is 

Ma burre din. The reply, Burre na 
How do you do? Adeka wa siddi 
Ans. Quite well, Aneka wa sisun 
Good night! Nubdee 
Answer. Wa nubdee 

Although the country of the Somali is bordered on the south 
by the Negro or Sowahili races, I have not found a single word 
which is common to the two languages. 

If the Somali are descended from the Abyssinian invaders of 
Arabia Felix, who were driven out by the tribe of Hamyar, 
assisted by an army sent by Khusru Anushirwan, king of Persia, 
it is remarkable that they have not preserved any knowledge of 
a written character. I consider that the Somali are an original 
unmixed African race.